We follow after bubbles, blown in th'air.
Pleasure of life, what is't?
Only the good hours of an ague
The Jacobean age was one of questioning and uncertainty about many issues, such as religion, politics and law. At the same time it was rediscovering the potency of Classical texts of Rome and Greece, and reinterpreting tragic form to suit its own ends. The Duchess of Malfi is a revenge tragedy, but Webster has used the form for much more than just its entertainment value; he has used it as a vehicle for the exploration of some themes relevant to the society of his time.
Webster based his plot on a true story set in Italy, and kept the Italian setting because like Shakespeare and other playwrights of his day, he had to use politically-acceptable foreign settings in which to explore ideas such as those presented in The Duchess of Malfi, (which were really commentaries on the England of their own era), to do with inequality, injustice, and corruption, without causing outrage in response to his work.
Antonio and The Duchess
The fact that Antonio can never have an equal relationship with the Duchess has prompted some readers to feel that his importance as a character in the play is limited, while others suggest that his main role is as a mouthpiece for Webster's own judgements and opinions. To assess the importance of his role we need to consider it relation to the Duchess, and in the context of the play as a whole.
Inequalities of power associated with gender and social status are highlighted in the relationship between The Duchess and Antonio, and the reactions of others towards their relationship.
In Antonio's self-deprecating dying speech,
Antonio: We follow afte...
... middle of paper ...
... been pointed out that The Duchess of Malfi is a flawed play. For example Ferdinand reveals to Bosola a possible motive for wanting his sister to be murdered:
Ferdinand: To have gain'd an infinite mass of treasure by her death. [Act 5, Scene ii]
But this sounds unconvincing, as Malfi is little more than a poor fishing village. Moments such as these in the play have led it to be criticised for its plot, and it has other flaws. For example is it plausible that the Duchess could marry Antonio and have children in secret? Webster tends to neglect the importance of The Duchess' sons, and in Act 5 we see Delio apparently with a false heir.
But in spite of these flaws The Duchess of Malfi has lasted and remained popular, not just for its potent entertainment value and Webster's masterful use of language, but also for the insights it gives us into Jacobean society.
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